SAVANNAH, Ga. – "It's March," Horace Broadnax says with a smile, "and that means something magical is getting ready to happen."
He's right. Something magical is getting ready to happen. And it's happening right in front of him. A Savannah State team that was 0-28 the year before Broadnax took over as coach in 2005 and 2-28 in his first season has 21 wins and a Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference regular-season title in its first year in the league. The Tigers, built with a bunch of players who came to play at arguably the worst basketball program in the country, are the No. 1 seed in the MEAC tourney and have a shot at a NCAA tournament bid.
Something magical has happened in front of Broadnax before. Back in the mid-'90s, he took over Valencia Community College in Orlando and won nine games his first year followed by 20 in his second. He then left for Bethune-Cookman, another MEAC school, where he won a single game in his first season in 1997-98 and 11 in his second.
So Broadnax – who turns 48 on March 22 – is Cinderella Man, a bearded fellow with a law degree from Florida State who's able to conjure up-from-nowhere teams in next-door-to-nowhere places. And this is way beyond Creighton and Cleveland State, Valpo and VCU. Savannah State's basketball budget – half-a-million dollars – is a third of Butler's and 1/26th of Duke's.
How does he do it? Why is something magical always getting ready to happen under Horace Broadnax's watch?
Maybe because 27 years ago this March, something magical happened in front of Broadnax. And it completely broke his heart.
It's a delicate question, but Broadnax is not afraid to answer it. "Do you ever think about 1985?"
He smiles weakly.
"I think about 1985," he says, "all the time."
Broadnax was a guard on one of the best college basketball teams ever – the John Thompson-coached Georgetown Hoyas. They had five future pros, including Patrick Ewing, David Wingate and Reggie Williams. They won it all in 1984 and stormed back to the title game the next season to face a Villanova team they already had beaten twice that season.
But in that final, the Wildcats shot the lights out and hung with the Hoyas the whole way. Georgetown went on a run and held a lead late in the game, but as Ewing told Tim Layden in an epic Sports Illustrated feature on the game, written in 2004, "We made a mistake, turned the ball over, and the better team did not win the game."
That mistake is largely blamed on Broadnax. A pass from teammate Billy Martin bounced off his shin and the tide turned against the Hoyas for good. "If you're going to win championships," Broadnax told Layden, "you've got to catch those. Got to."
Today, Villanova's win is considered one of the greatest upsets in sports history. When people think of March Madness, thoughts of Villanova are not far behind.
Sitting in a Savannah gym Sunday, Broadnax doesn't sound any less wistful about that play and that day.
"Villanova did what they needed to do," he says. "There was a situation between me and Billy Martin …"
His voice trails off.
Broadnax does not wear his championship ring from 1984. When asked why, he softly says, "I don't know. I really don't know." He says the ring is with his wife's jewelry.
So how does a man who once played for everything recruit kids to come to Savannah State and play for nothing? The school was a Division I basketball independent, a special kind of purgatory, when Broadnax came out of a three-year "retirement." March Madness? That wasn't even enough of a thought to be an afterthought.
Ask the upperclassmen why they came to Savannah State, and you'll get answers including "No one else offered me," "I just wanted to get out of the state" and, best of all, "It felt like Fort Lauderdale." (Even Broadnax, when asked why he took this job, laughingly says, "Because North Carolina didn't call.")
That Savannah State is a historically black school hasn't helped. Numerous black families thought the university was located in a bad area, even though Savannah is one of the prettiest places in the Southeast, the facilities are fine and the gym is quite nice.
So Broadnax and his staff looked for players who didn't need the carrot of postseason play or NBA hopes. Broadnax himself was a prep star in Plant City, Fla., but played a supporting role at Georgetown. He was a grinder more than a diva, and he wanted to see that spirit in the high schoolers he went after.
He points out Arnold Louis, who Broadnax says "couldn't shoot, couldn't make a layup" but did dive after loose balls even when he didn't need to. Louis now is the team's third-leading scorer. The team's leading scorer, Rashad Hassan, says of Broadnax, "He's going to get 100 percent out of you – whether you want to give it or not."
Assistant Jay Gibbons relied on a clever recruiting ploy: He would go to AAU tournaments and watch to see who stayed around after games to just shoot. Those were the players he went after. A few years ago, during the sweltering month of July when he was in Florida looking for more recruits, he got a call from campus security: The players he had recruited before – those now on the team – had snuck into the gym in the middle of the night to shoot.
"I want kids who want to play here," Broadnax says. "And I stick a lightning bolt up their butt."
Practice is scheduled for 1 p.m. and the players get there around 12:40. They wait quietly on the bench in a darkened gym even though no one is there to open the locker room for them to change. An assistant shows up, and the players dress and return to the floor. They start going through drills. Still no coach. They begin to drip sweat. Still no coach. Finally, Broadnax strides in wordlessly and sits down. He watches. The drills continue. He doesn't say a word to any player for the entire practice. It's as if he's not there at all.
But ask any player and they will repeat his sayings. "Burn energy" is one. Another favorite is, "You're going to meet an [expletive] like me later in life. You still have to do your job."
But by far the most repeated is this: "One thing finished is better than a thousand things started."
That's the theme he harps on: "Finish."
It's not a rare idea for a coach, of course, but Broadnax is obsessed with it. Nothing means anything until the season is completely over.
"Y'all ain't done nothing," says junior Preston Blackman, paraphrasing his coach. "We got an NIT bid? Oooh."
An NIT bid – automatic for a regular-season champ that doesn't win its league tournament and doesn't get an NCAA at-large bid – would be enormous for the school and the program, but it's met with a shrug here. "We're not BS'ing," Blackman says. "We're trying to get something done."
The Tigers are getting something done with defense. They are 15th in the nation in scoring defense – impressive for a team in the MEAC – and they start suffocating opponents as soon as foes cross midcourt. "If you play defense from halfcourt in," Broadnax says, "it covers a lot of your mistakes."
If it all sounds a lot like a John Thompson-coached team, that's because it is. Broadnax recalls with fondness how Thompson would work his team through practice from 4:30 p.m. until 7:30 p.m., then have them back in the gym from 4:30 am to 7:30 am. (Broadnax says he tried the 4:30 a.m. thing at Bethune-Cookman but stopped when he figured he was punishing himself more than he was motivating the players.)
Is this coaching philosophy borne out of what happened 27 years ago in the national title game?
"If I could go back," Broadnax says, "I would want to work harder and want Coach Thompson to be harder on me. It's always the fish that got away, not the one you caught. We had the ball, game tied. Maybe I could have taken a charge, dove for a ball.
A laid-back guy becomes "The Incredible Hulk" during games, in one player's words. Every speech is spent trying to get his players to realize that every single little "something" can make a difference not only in a game, but in life. It's a remarkable feat, really: Broadnax is a three-time MEAC coach of the year because he has taught kids playing for nothing to be obsessed about "something" the way he is.
Now the Tigers are playing for something. They are playing for a shot at March Madness – a wonderful yet twisted place Broadnax hasn't been since that ball bounced off his shin.
Broadnax left coaching in 2002 because of burnout. Bethune-Cookman was on the same track Savannah State is now, and the team collapsed after getting to the brink of a conference title.
"We were so close," he says. "I thought there shouldn't be a drop-off. There was a drop-off. I wasn't getting the right responses from the kids."
So he walked away.
Broadnax was happy to be a lawyer in Orlando until his wife told him the checks would have to come more regularly. That's when he decided to go back into coaching. Now he tells his players about what happened at Georgetown, and what happened at Bethune-Cookman. He has had a thousand things started, and only one thing finished – at least in his eyes.
If you ask him if he'd rather coach a 16th-seeded Savannah State past a No. 1 seed in this season's tournament, or go back and win that game against Villanova, he doesn't hesitate.
He'd go back and beat 'Nova.
Because that would mean two things finished.
How obsessed is Broadnax with finishing? Recently, he went to one of his oldest son's games and watched that team start to run away with things. They were up 20 when his son got the ball and decided to shoot. Broadnax was upset.
"You got to manage the game!" he says now, reliving the moment.
Broadnax's son, Horace Kaleb, is 9.
But, hey, it works. He has won at Valencia CC. He won at Bethune-Cookman. And now he is winning at Savannah State.
Thus, the question: Why isn't Broadnax at someplace bigger?
His overall record isn't that great only because the reclamation projects he takes on are too depleted to yield any more than one or two wins in his first season. And, of course, the usual December games at traditional powers are not winnable. (The Tigers had such games at Georgetown, Indiana, Butler, Wisconsin and Arkansas this season.)
He never worked as an assistant, so he didn't take the traditional path.
And, let's face it, not many people follow the MEAC, and nobody ever sees Bethune-Cookman or Savannah State on TV.
"You have to win the press conference," Broadnax says. And, well, there's really no press conference to win since there's hardly any press.
But there might be – and soon. The Tigers play their first-ever MEAC tournament game Wednesday, against Hampton, and three wins would mean a spot in March Madness.
"Maybe I'll get to see my old friend [Jim] Boeheim," Broadnax says, grinning. "I'll call up Rollie [Massimino, the former Villanova coach] and ask him for that rabbit's foot."
But Broadnax knows that once the ball is tipped, it's literally out of his hands. All the marathon practices, all the speeches, all the lessons learned might not mean a thing. He could be Cinderella, or he could be Cinderella'd.
He might have the best team in the MEAC tournament, but he also had the best team in the tournament in 1985.
"We were going to make it happen," he says. "People said winning back-to-back couldn't be done. It would be done.
"But you have to have the magical part of it, too."
It's March, and that means something magical is getting ready to happen.
And it can happen to anyone.
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